A Fireside Chat with Branford Marsalis

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The writers talk about John Coltrane as a spiritual guru. He was spiritual. My reverend is spiritual, but he can't play the saxophone.
A Love Supreme is a psalm of hope, that audibly embodied the black struggle. A Love Supreme merits a universal reverence as a suite of such operatic breadth, it is rarely performed live. Branford Marsalis is not the first Marsalis to perform "A Love Supreme" on record. That distinction belongs to brother Wynton. Branford is blunt, often brutal in his matter-of-fact fidelity. And he pulls no punches here.

All About Jazz: How important is John Coltrane?

Branford Marsalis: He's important. But I view him more as one of the many greats who extended the tradition. I think some people tend to think that he reinvented the tradition. I've never agreed with that. There are a couple of interviews that you can find online of him growing up and it's clear that he had very specific and profound influences as a young person. And his intent was never to reinvent the music. He did the same homework that a lot of other people did. It's just that it was his destiny to be one of the few that could extend it.

AAJ: Jazz places a considerable amount of weight on his relevance.

BM: I understand why they do that with Miles. Jazz fans love Miles and I love him for a myriad of reasons, but the overviews are always too simplistic.

The one time that I played with Miles, I spent a part of the time talking about Louis Armstrong and Clark Terry and he was immensely knowledgeable about the two. When you start to get into this cult of personality shit, all they talk about is that he was cool and he cursed people out and smoked cigarettes and had a bunch of chicks. If you work for Time and that is the only way you can reference the music, OK. But in jazz, we need to get away from that cult of personality shit and deal with the music even though it might decrease the readership a little bit. So when people talk about Trane, they need to talk about Trane in a musical fashion, rather than these catch phrases like "spirituality" and "Eastern religion." Like the sum total of his experience can be summarized in a Buddhist chant.

They just discount 25 or 30 years of scholarship. There is an interview where he talked about how he listened to Coleman Hawkins and how he was a big Johnny Hodges fan and then from Johnny Hodges he went to Bird. They just dismiss 25 years of scholarship. The jazz schools teach the Atlantic Records years - all the stuff that can be coda-fied - "Giant Steps," "Countdown," and "Central Park West." The writers talk about John Coltrane as a spiritual guru. He was spiritual. My reverend is spiritual, but he can't play the saxophone. As a student of the music, you just have to look beyond that and do your own research.

AAJ: In your research, what did you find?

BM: Musicians propagate it. It is the same thing you hear all the time. But when you look at it, you can tell that John Coltrane was a serious student of music. He was always stretching, always learning, always trying to get things, always working on things. He was influenced by the same guys that Charlie Parker was influenced by the same guys that everybody else was influenced by. It just came out a different way. He went through this intense theory period, which was the Atlantic Records years. He came out on the other side of it, which was the Impulse! stuff and the Impulse! stuff is ironic.

Harmonically, the Impulse! records are infinitely simpler in harmonic structure than the Atlantic records. But you listen to all the saxophone players that play, they all embrace the Atlantic records and ignore the Impulse! records. If that kind of extensive harmonic knowledge is so valuable, why can't people play "A Love Supreme?"

Why can't they play "Kulu Se Mama?" Why can't they play "Miles' Mode?" That's the thing that Coltrane touched on. He was always doing work, but when he found the right band, he worked on all the stuff that he had worked on prior - his understanding of the blues, his understanding of the black church, his understanding of the essence and spirituality of people came into his music. That band was the best at interpreting the music he wanted to play. He searched around for the right guys. When you listen to the record Olé Coltrane , there are tracks on there when Jimmy Garrison wasn't playing. One time it was Art Davis and another song, Reggie Workman was playing with him. He found the guys he wanted and once you find them, you keep them. They are the guys that are going to allow him to experiment with the music in ways that other guys wouldn't.

AAJ: Does that hold true for your own quartet?

BM: Absolutely. It is the same thing that Ron, Tony, Herbie, and Wayne gave Miles. That band lasted almost as long as the Coltrane band with Elvin, McCoy, and Jimmy. "Tain" and I just have this musical relationship that is going to survive everything. He is the embodiment of that spirit to me. He just has all of this marvelous natural ability. He is a student of the music. I know how to make him play his best and he knows how to make me play my best.

AAJ: A Love Supreme is a perceived holy grail, why take that on?

BM: I don't buy that thesis at all. The only reason why they think it is his most spiritual album is because he said it's a tribute to God. It's more spiritual than Kulu Se Mama? It is more spiritual than Om? I heard Freddie Hubbard talking about playing on Ascension - he had to leave the room. He just walked out of the studio for a while to get his shit together. If that's not spirituality, come on. I never heard Trane say that. He made other records after that. I never heard Trane say that A Love Supreme was his most spiritual record. We make up these things and they just perpetuate themselves. In order to play it, you have to have an understanding of many, many facets of black culture.

You have to have an understanding of the blues. You have to have an understanding of the impact that the church has on those musicians from that period. You have to be able to be able to play with a certain kind of sustained physical intensity that bands just don't play with anymore. That comes from jazz' tradition during the early days when a lot of successful jazz groups were dance bands. In order to be successful, you had to play with a sustained intensity for four hours in a dance setting. The problem is trying to extend it to 60 minutes is too long. You can't. It is too long. You can't make it 60 minutes. The closest we got to it was 48 minutes. We played it as long as we could play it on that CD and I think it might be 50, maybe. What you have to do is play a couple of songs and then play it and get off the stage because everything that trails it sounds stupid. Everything that trails it sounds fucking sophomoric.

AAJ: Having already documented "A Love Supreme," will you revisit it as a band?

BM: We're kind of done with it. We're doing it one more time next year because it was the specific request of the promoter. I'm working on my own extended piece now. We're working on the next record. It has clearly left an indelible impression on us. I think that when I listen to the group play and interact with one another on Eternal, I link it directly to "A Love Supreme" because it forced us to concentrate on music.

Visit Branford Marsalis on the web.

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Branford Marsalis: It's All About the Band

Photo Credit
Brian O'Connor


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